Wounded Warrior Denali Challenge

Office of the Secretary
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[intro music]

That mountain challenged me physically, mentally and spiritually. I came back a different person.

We spent 21 days on the glacier. It really starts to wear you down. You really have to suck it up, and just keep on focusing on your mission.

You really have to devise systems. You have to devise methodologies that help you get through them, so that a group of five disabled veterans can make one step forward.

The Denali Challenge was an attempt, very simply to take a bunch of severely wounded warriors from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and Vietnam. And attempt to climb the highest mountain in North America, which is McKinley or Denali in Alaska.

That mountain is considered to be one of the toughest mountains in the world to climb. Both because of the weather, and because of that fact that, unlike the Himalayas, you have to carry all your own equipment because you don't have any sherpas or porters to schlep the stuff for you.

Logistically it was intense on a personal basis. There was a lot of group equipment. There was a lot of individual equipment. The individual equipment was first and foremost, just overwhelming. I should say.

Physically of course, there's conditioning you have to go through to prepare yourself for that. Mentally is probably the third leg of knowledge you really need to have about that mountain.


Each day was its own challenge, it was its own adventure. Nothing was ever consistent, the only thing consistent was, things were inconsistent. You never knew what to expect.

This is day three of the climb. We have been on the mountain now for three days. We are in our second camp, at 7,800 feet. The last two days we've been climbing through a lot of very, very large snowfields of the Kahiltna Glacier. This area, right where we've just been through, is full of crevasses.

You have to be very careful when you're walking through, because some of them are several hundred feet deep. They can basically finish you off.

The way we handle the climb is to stay roped together, if one member of the party goes through, the others will fall to the ground. Grab their picks and act as anchors to keep the fallen person from going too far. Then they begin excavation, evacuation procedures. This is something that we have to be very careful about. If you're careful, it is safe.

We are going to be doing it a lot differently than people that have all of their facilities, that climb. One of those is, we're going to establish nine camps, going up the mountain, in small increments, as opposed to five camps, in much larger increments.

The advantage of this is, it will enable us to walk a little bit slower, with our artificial prostheses. Also, it will enable us to acclimate better to the elevation, which will rise from 7,000 to 20,320 feet.


You try to block that out of your mind, as much as you can. You feel sympathy and sorrow for those individuals and their loved ones. But, at the same time everyone on this mountain, and particularly this team included really understands that that is an unfortunate reality, of this mountain.

Avalanches happen up here. There's risks associated with doing what we're dong. I don't think anybody in the team ever even had to make that decision of whether to go on or not.

It's unfortunate. I say a prayer for the families and the people that died. But it won't stop me. The only that's going to stop me here is if the weather changes, and stop us. I really think if the weather holds out, we're going to stand on the top of this mountain.


There were times you were legitimately concerned about your welfare. Leave it to the weather to do that to you, because you can't control it. Once again, you've got conditions that are concerning. And all the while, you're not able to control them.


We're at 14,000 feet. We have been stuck at 14,000 feet for eight days, and this shows who rules this mountain. It is Denali. The weather has been severe up top, 60 mile an hour winds, deep snow, which right now, we're getting reports, is chest high above the 17,000 foot mark. Ice that create tremendous challenges for the amputees on this trip.


When we finally had to make the decision to turn around, I was the first one who had to make the decision to turn around. I got back to 14 camp. I literally broke down and started crying. Here it was actually the first project, the first expedition that I have done in 42 years with Disabled Sports USA, that I hadn't succeeded at. It was a devastating feeling.


They had to make a decision, for our safety to turn us around. And it was the right decision. Getting to the top? We didn't get to the top, and that's OK. We got to the bottom safely. And that's what it's about.

What took me about 18 hours to figure out, with the help of my team, with the help of my guides was that ultimately we did reach that person, that group of people. That's in need of some type of visual signal. That they can do something physical, they can do something which gets them back into activity. That doesn't have to result in the summit-ing of the tallest mountain in North America.

The mere fact that we put one foot on that mountain was a huge step for a lot of people to realize the art of the possible. The fact that guys with injuries that we have, got as far as we did, speaks for itself.

That's really what this is all about. Give it your best effort, so that you can realize that you really can be active in life again. And get back to living your dreams.


Last edited 4/26/2016